Saan ka papunta?

In America our standard greeting is “How are you?” or “What’s up?” Although some people may occasionally take the time to craft a genuine response, more typically the answer is unimportant, “Good. Howboutchu?” or “Nothing.”

In the Philippines if you see someone in passing you can expect them to ask where you are going first and foremost, “Saan ka papunta?” (Saan=where; ka=you; papunta=going) or even “Saan ka?” (Where you?) for short.

At first I would blunder through a response, my mind searching desperately for the proper Tagalog words to explain my destination and objective. However just as we may barely listen as a friend mutters “I’m fine” and then moves on to say something more important, Filipinos often respond “Dyan lang” or “Just there.” However the easiest and most classic response uses no words at all…

There! (straight head)
There! (To the left)
There! (To the right)

I have now come to expect this common response. However when I am looking for a place to buy a new cell phone charger in town and directions are given by puckered lips, navigating becomes a game much like Hot and Cold until I finally reach my destination.

This blog entry was inspired by Andrew, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua, who is collecting common sayings from several different countries for his own blog

More fish inside = Better fishing outside

A 1.5hr bike ride to one of my favorite snorkel spots

If I ride my bike one and a half hours across mountain ridge-tops, covered in coconut trees, overlooking beautiful aquamarine ocean water, I’d arrive at one of my favorite snorkeling spots: a calm remote inlet with beautiful boulders of coral reef and massive fields of foliose corals.

A fish here seems to have countless places to hide, swim, and play. And yet I struggle to find any fish. A small school of razorfish turns quickly to the side and backs away.

A small school of razorfish turns quickly to the side and backs away.
A small school of razorfish turns quickly to the side and backs away.

I think I catch a glimpse of a grouper’s tail, but it disappeared so quickly it may have only been a hawkfish. Almost all the fish I see are less than 10 centimeters in size.

Then, I reach a section of coral not nearly as beautiful. This colony has been entangled in fishing nets.

Fishing nets
Fishing nets
More nets!
More nets!

If I were able to remove it all, I’d guess it could fill a truck bed. Just then, I hear the hum of an approaching fishing boat and look up to see a fisherman tossing out his large net.

“Wag muna!!” I want to yell, “Stop! Don’t!” This coral reef, more than any I have seen, needs to be protected. Its populations have been severely overfished, and yet the habitat remains largely intact with the potential to support a recovery. If this reef continues to be fished both the coral and its inhabitants will surely cease to exist in a matter of years.

Snorkeling in Hinag-Oman, Ferrol
Snorkeling in Hinag-Oman, Ferrol, Romblon

I am a US Peace Corps volunteer assigned to work in the Philippines as a specialist in coastal resource management. My office requested a volunteer to assist with the establishment of three large marine protected areas (MPAs) within our province.

MPAs are the primary tool for coral reef conservation and marine fisheries management. The idea is to designate a section of coral reef habitat off limits to fishing, a no-take zone. This protected area is then a safe haven for fish to breed and grow, replenishing fish stocks and improving coral reef habitat.

Within the past 50 years the Philippines has seen dramatic declines in both fish catch per unit effort and the health of coral reefs. Overfishing is a major part of this problem. Hence an MPA may be the saving grace for many coastal communities. And yet, I falter just a little as I try to explain this to a fisherman. I can see from the children that run half naked on the dirt roads, the old women pumping water and washing clothes day in and day out, and the taut muscles and callused hands of each fisherman that my timeline and his are not the same.


“More fish inside = Better fishing outside.” This is the slogan we were taught during our technical training before beginning work as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines. I have featured this simple slogan on educational videos and mentioned it during numerous presentations. But each time I say it I feel a twinge of guilt, the reality is not so simple.

It is true that MPAs can increase fish numbers, and then these same fish may swim over the protected area boundary line and could be caught by a fisherman. Residents of Apo Island, Philippines, have witnessed this reality and their gains in fish catch have demonstrated this ‘spillover effect’[1]. However Apo Island Marine Reserve was established in 1985, and has been properly managed ever since.

Apo Island Marine Reserve est. 1985 and a haven for turtles, corals and tourism.
Apo Island Marine Reserve est. 1985 and a haven for turtles, corals and tourism.

The success of an MPA depends on many factors, most notably successful management: Is the no fishing rule actually enforced? Given successful management, gains in fish populations have been widely documented inside MPAs. “More fish inside = Better fishing outside” or the “spillover effect” has also been documented, but not nearly to the same degree. I am not lying as I advocate to the fisher folk that they abstain from certain grounds to increase their yields in the future, however this timeline for spillover occurs about 15-40 years after the MPAs creation, given proper management. And so as that fisherman stares back at me, his eyes cry out, “I need food for tomorrow.”

Despite my guilt, I preach to establish MPAs and continue justify it with the idea of spillover. Although short-term needs are strong incentives, all MPAs within my province are community-managed, built on the support of local fisher folk and People’s Organization in coordination with the local government. This long-term planning is essential to community prosperity.

As a government staff member, I also work on alternative livelihood development, so that these closures, which may save declining fish populations, can coincide with options for displaced fish folk. Tourism options from a successful MPA could reap more benefits than the reef even brought at the start. Even so, the solution is not perfect, but for a coastal community overfishing is not a simple issue.



Russ, G.R., Alcala, A.C., Maypa, A.P., Calumpong, H.P., & White, A.T. (2004) “Marine Reserve Benefits Local Fisheries.” Ecological Applications 14(2): 597-606.

[1] Note: No study has literally tagged fish inside and provided concrete evidence of the same fish being caught outside an MPA, however Russ et al 2004 have demonstrated a rise in catch per unit effort in waters surrounding the MPA in the years following its creation when no such gains were found in waters further from the MPA.

An Evening in Odiongan

An evening in Odiongan
The road by my house. This paved national highway runs the circumference of the island and is the major means of transportation.

Every morning at 7:50am and evening at 5pm and often many times in between I cross this road, navigate numerous tricycles, motorbikes or trucks and walk to the OPAG office where I work. I live in a place where buildings are painted with bright colors and the sun sets spectacularly over the ocean just one block from my house.

Living here for over a year, I now speak both Filipino English and American English, the differences are subtle but some phrases change depending on my audience. For example I constantly remind myself to avoid saying “It’s okay” or “I’m good” to kindly reject the offer of a cold soda which I do not want. The commonly used American words okay and good are perceived solely as affirmation here. A standard Filipino English phrase which I have adopted in amusement, “Wow she is so industrious” to compliment someone hard at work.

I would describe Odionganons as ‘industrious’ also. The first inhabitants arrived here in the 14th century, a second wave of settlers came in 1810, followed by both Spanish and American influence, WWII battles with the Japanese, and right up to the present day where water flows through pipes supplied by a local reservoir and electricity is (nearly) always available. I have my choice of Filipino or American foods, but consider myself lucky because large fastfood chains are not yet reached the remote premises of my Filipino home.

Living in the most peaceful province in the Philippines, I’d rank that tricycle shown in the photo above as one of my greatest risks, merely because traffic in the Philippines flows like water and most other safety concerns are non-existent in this remote, yet also progressive town.

Happy Halloween

Halloween paper lanterns: Just decorate a brown paper bag and place a candle inside.

TrIcK oR tReAt!!!

Unfortunately, Filipino children do not know the excitement of running amuck in one’s neighborhood clad in witch, zombie or vampire costumes and collecting so much candy that you have to sort through a personal mountain in your home living room, while fending off siblings who want to steal all the snickers bars from your loot!

Halloween is celebrated on November 1st in the Philippines as All Saint’s Day. Tradition here is to visit the cemetery with your family to respect the graves of deceased relatives.

I promised the Famero children a Halloween celebration. Although I could not rope all the neighbors into handing out candy, we made paper lanterns and had a toilet paper mummy costume competition. Still a successful holiday!

Mummies Maxine, Zyrex & Coco

Continue reading Happy Halloween